Just saw my first live concert in a long while – cheers COVID.
It was filmed 53 years ago. Yeah, you picked it – The Beatles rooftop concert from the Let it Be sessions in 1969, freshly on our screens thanks to Sir Peter Jackson and his multi-media magicians.
The actual gig comes after an around 7.5-hour wait while we watch the Fab Four trying to pull a new album together in a couple of studios and make plans for a live gig…somewhere. It’s not the world’s first glimpse of this; it was cut into a movie (Let it Be) in 1970 and the album of the same name was released at the same time. Half a century on, Jackson was given access to many hours’ footage of the studio sessions and his team cut three three-hour, fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the old tapes.
The result is a revelation. This is John, Paul, Ringo and George warts-n-all and shorn of the celebrity primping that often accompanies any star appearances before a camera. It’s The Beatles at the end of their time as a band, wealthy, individually ambitious and appearing to go through the motions in making an album. Everyone else seems to want it way more than they do.
They bring a few ideas, shreds of possible songs and for the first two parts of the doco’ trio, they – to put it bluntly – piss around a lot, playing anything else that jumps to mind or takes their fancy, goofing off, falling out (George leaves the band for a week) and endlessly arguing over what they were trying to achieve. The unsung heroes of the film are the band’s producer George Martin, road manager Mal Evans, film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, engineer Glyn Johns and all the other support people surrounding the band. And Ringo (who has little role in the actual songwriting (except for glimpses of “Octopus’s garden”.) Their patience is astonishing.
They have a finite time to get the album and show sorted – which Jackson cleverly maps with days crossed off a calendar – and actually end up doing the (in)famous rooftop gig above the studio a day before their final studio day – with only a few of the planned 11-14 songs actually recorded.
So, it’s a frustrating watch. Jackson’s efforts have had huge publicity as you’d expect and for Beatles fans (and music fans in general) this is a real treasure – a museum piece. There’s this agonising process of watching the band pull together a song like “Get Back” – finding the words as they go – and of playing a song quite well, only to sabotage or butcher some part of it. McCartney’s working hardest, as the de facto manager of the band since Brian Epstein’s untimely death, Lennon is largely bored and hamming it up much of the time, Ringo hovers at the edge doing his drumming when required but looking a bit lost and uninvolved, while George is frustrated that his songs aren’t getting the attention of the Lennon-McCartney ones.
The shift from a large barn-like space at EMI in Twickenham to the Apple Studio makes a difference to the mood and intent though; the songs that will be on Let it Be (and the post-breakup album Abbey Road) start to sound more complete and crisper and a few takes are album quality. But on the eve of the rooftop gig there are probably only 2-3 complete and in the can it seems.
The gig – seeing it for the first time – is weird. It’s on the Apple Studios roof five storeys up and no one in the street can see the band, though most recognise it’s The Beatles. The cops turn up sparked by 30 noise complaints in half an hour and there’s a marvellous piece of interference-running by Apple’s doorman and receptionist that delay their arrival on the roof long enough to allow the band to complete half a dozen or so songs before they get told to pull the plug (or so it appears).
The band play the songs on the roof well. The professionalism comes through; no farting around up there, though John is sorely tempted to lark it up. They look like they’re enjoying it; then they stop and the onscreen line says it will be their last-ever public performance together. Jeez. That’s kinda sad.
It’s unclear at the end how all the songs on Let it Be do finally get taped, though three of the live rooftop versions make the album.
There are some great moments. McCartney comes in alone to work on the piano and “Oh Darling” emerges almost fully formed. Lennon talking up Peter Green after seeing Fleetwood Mac. And you could almost hear the broad universal audience cry of “yes” when Paul and John finally figure out where the home Jojo left actually was…Tucson. The stuttering genesis of the songs we know so well is fascinating (if agonisingly slo-o-ow); this is a real eye into the songwriting art and challenge – and how a band actually collaborates (or struggles to) to make a tune.
It’s also a fascinating glimpse into late 60s London – the fashions, the ever-present ciggies and the people that formed The Beatles inner circle. Yoko Ono is more or less in frame 90% of the time John is – they seem joined at the hip. She says very little, feeds John chewing gum and at one point does some performance singing that is excruciating. McCartney’s partner Linda is also present often – with at one stage her daughter on the scene largely wrecking a day’s recording. Lindsay-Hogg is an interesting character: young, cigar-smoking and constantly trying to talk the foursome into actually pulling their fingers out and doing a show or TV special…or even finish the album. I told you it was frustrating – and we’re just seeing nine out of the 60+ hours that were filmed.
The musicianship is interesting. Ringo really can drum; John is a better guitarist than I thought; George doesn’t really show off guitar skills; Paul isn’t just a bass player. The John/Paul harmonies are pretty dang good – when they’re really trying. Then there’s keyboards player Billy Preston who almost accidentally turns up at the studio for something else and ends up like a fifth Beatle, making a lot of difference to the tunes – and staying wonderfully chill throughout.
In an age of binge-watching long series on Netflix, etc, I can see why Jackson did a bit of a LOTR/Hobbit on this. But it feels a bit flabby in places – could have been tighter? Hardcore fans will probably disagree. It meanders and peters-out in places. Maybe that’s the intent. It’s a snapshot – a drawn out one – of a marvellous band in its final throes.
But I did like it. It was real. It really did tell me a lot more about The Beatles than anything I can remember coming before. Recommended but pace yourself.